10 of History’s Most Dangerous Female Prisoners

Prison life has long fascinated those of us who follow the law. We often hear the anecdotal (and probably terrible) advice given to newcomers to the clink: fight the biggest guy to assert dominance, watch yourself in the showers, and so on. Women’s prisons, though less familiar, have gradually entered the public eye through documentaries and streaming shows like Orange Is the New Black, offering a sensationalized glimpse into life behind bars.

But what are female prisoners really like? Are they incarcerated for the same heinous crimes as men? Do they reach the same level of notoriety as infamous male criminals like Charles Bronson? Here is a list of ten of the most infamous female prisoners ever.

10. Genene Jones

Killers are among the most deserving to be behind bars. The threat of taking someone’s life should be enough to keep you from society. However, killing a child is on a whole other level.

Born in 1950, this Texan murderer was a pediatric nurse, coming into contact with children daily. By injecting her victims with various poisons, investigators estimate that Jones ended the lives of around 60 children, making her a serial murderer. Sentenced to 99 years for the murder of Chelsea Ann McLellan, it seemed Jones was destined for a life behind bars. In a staggering u-turn, a mandatory release law was passed, and Jones was considered for release after only serving a third of her sentence. After much effort and more deaths attributed to her coming to light, a jury decided she should remain a prisoner for life.

9. Cathy Wood and Gwendolyn Graham

Who can stand against true love? The kind of love that makes you kill others to seal your love for each other.

When Graham and Wood, both aides at Alpine Manor, met, their relationship quickly descended into murder. Wood admitted to killing five patients together, choosing victims based on the first letters of their names in an attempt to spell “MURDER,” which would somehow bond them forever. After a few murders, they abandoned the spelling, but the deaths continued. Proving that the seal didn’t work, the couple split. A few years later, Wood confessed to her husband and, in exchange for testifying against Graham, was sentenced to 40 years, receiving parole in 2018 (after being denied eight times). Graham received five life sentences.

8. Nannie Doss

When you read about a serial killer, unsettling images come to mind. It gets worse when the killer is a granny, also known as the Giggling Granny, a murderer with a sunny disposition.

Nancy Hazel, aka Nannie Doss, had many terrible nicknames: Lady Bluebeard, Jolly Black Widow, and the Lonely Hearts Killer. Arrested for the death of her husband in 1955, Nannie Doss confessed to murdering four more. However, speculation is rife that she killed almost 12 people throughout her life. When one husband became too much, she would kill him off and move on to the next. At her trial, she blamed her actions on a brain injury, but the jury saw through it, sentencing her to life in prison. She died while serving her sentence a few years later.

7. Lindy Chamberlain

In August 1970, tragedy struck at a camping ground near Australia’s Ayer Rock, leaving 10-year-old Azaria Chamberlain dead.

Lindy’s defense? A dingo carried her child off. Azaria’s body was never found. Lindy was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence. Her husband, Michael, received a suspended sentence for being an accessory after the fact. The case was a sensation, with police feeding the media information, complicating matters further. The Chamberlains exhausted every avenue, and Lindy was facing life in jail when Azaria’s jacket was found near an area with a high dingo population. The cause of death remains a mystery, but there was enough doubt to exonerate the Chamberlains.

6. Mary Bell

When 10-year-old Mary Bell killed two boys aged three and four, the world was shocked. How could someone so young commit such atrocities? Psychopathy.

Mary Bell was accused of strangling the two boys. Under mounting evidence and testimony from her older sister, Anne Bell, the case was clear. Bell had taken their lives and was to be tried for murder. Bell then penned letters of confession to the parents of the victims. Court psychiatrists convinced the jury that Bell was too young to form the intent of murder, and considering her psychopathy, she could not be held responsible for her actions. Bell was convicted of manslaughter and sent to adult prison due to a lack of juvenile detention facilities. She was released on good behavior twelve years later.

5. Joyce Mitchell

Joyce Mitchell was in prison, yes, but not for breaking the law. Employed by the Clinton Maximum Security Prison as a seamstress, she was just doing her job. Until she decided to break the law.

Joyce gave a drill and hacksaw to two dangerous criminals, Richard Matt and David Sweat, helping them escape prison in a sensational manner. The fugitives evaded authorities for almost three weeks, culminating in a shootout that left Matt dead and Sweat wounded and back in custody. Mitchell was planning to meet the men with a getaway car but got cold feet. She was charged with promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitation and sentenced to up to eight years in prison. She was released after five.

4. Sister Ping

Cheng Chui Ping, known as Sister Ping or the mother of snakeheads, was a ruthless business tycoon who made a living from human smuggling.

During a time when it was lucrative for people to flock to the U.S. from China for better opportunities, Ping decided to make a business of it. She smuggled as many as 3,000 people into the U.S., for a price, turning Ping into a wealthy international businesswoman. After a collaboration with Hong Kong authorities led to her capture, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Ping, once an illegal immigrant herself, eventually died in prison of pancreatic cancer.

3. Ilse Koch

Known as the Beast, the Witch, and the Bitch of Buchenwald, Koch was the wife of Col. Karl Koch of the SS and head of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Koch is infamous for some of history’s worst atrocities, including beatings and rapes. However, she is perhaps most famous for ordering the creation of lampshades, book covers, and gloves made from the tattooed skin of prisoners. By the end of the war, Koch was tried as a war criminal and received a stiff sentence for her involvement. The Americans, however, during the breakout of the Cold War, released Koch due to politics. Still, she was arrested the same day by the West German authorities, who sentenced her to life in prison. Koch eventually hanged herself with her sheets.

2. The San Antonio Four

At the height of the satanic panic, four friends felt the full brunt of what paranoia, fear, homophobia, and our obsession with the Devil could do.

Four Texas women—Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez—were convicted in 1998 of sexually assaulting two young girls after the alleged victims (who were seven and nine at the time) accused them of attacking them. One of the girls—Ramirez’s nieces—later testified that they lied after being upset about her aunt being a lesbian. The women spent fifteen years behind bars before their release. They had to fight another five years before a judge exonerated them and vacated their convictions.

1. Aileen Wuornos

Captured in the Oscar-winning performance by Charlize Theron in the film Monster, Aileen Wuornos was a controversial figure even after her arrest.

Known as one of the most dangerous female serial killers in U.S. history, Aileen shot and killed six men (possibly seven) between 1989 and 1990. She was arrested and subsequently sentenced to six death sentences a year later. She was executed by lethal injection in 2002, but her time in prison was not without incident. During her time on death row, Wuornos urged the authorities to execute her quickly, suggesting that delaying her execution was pointless as she was unrepentant and would kill again. She also suggested that her prolonged incarceration was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

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